Patients' medical records go online without consent
Patients’ confidential medical records are being placed on a controversial NHS database without their knowledge, doctors’ leaders have warned.

Telegraph | March 9, 2010
By Kate Devlin

Those who do not wish to have their details on the £11 billion computer system are supposed to be able to opt out by informing health authorities.

But doctors have accused the Government of rushing the project through, meaning that patients have had their details uploaded to the database before they have had a chance to object.

The scheme, one of the largest of its kind in the world, will eventually hold the private records of more than 50 million patients.

But it has been dogged by accusations that the private information held on it will not be safe from hackers.

The British Medical Association claims that records have been placed on the system without patients’ knowledge or consent.

It follows allegations that the Government wanted to complete the project before the Conservatives had a chance to cancel it.

In a letter to ministers published today, the BMA urges the Government to suspend the scheme.

Hamish Meldrum, its chairman, writes: "The breakneck speed with which this programme is being implemented is of huge concern.

"Patients’ right to opt out is crucial, and it is extremely alarming that records are apparently being created without them being aware of it.

"If the process continues to be rushed, not only will the rights of patients be damaged, but the limited confidence of the public and the medical profession in NHS IT will be further eroded."

At present 1.29 million people have had their details placed on the system. A further 8.9 million records are due to be added by June. By the end of next year, the NHS hopes to have more than 50 million uploaded.

The "summary" records contain basic medical information including illnesses, vaccination history, and could include medication patients have been given. Ages and addresses are also included.

Patients are supposed to be notified by letter at least 12 weeks before their details go live on the system and given the chance to opt out.

The BMA says that letters have gone to the wrong addresses and that many patients have been unsure what they mean.

Doctors point out that there has been no national advertising programme to explain the scheme, as has been the case with other government initiatives.

The BMA also criticises the fact that the information packs do not include the form which allows patients to opt out. It can only be obtained via the internet or by calling a helpline.

Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said: "The Health Service should not put in place bureaucratic obstacles to patient choice because they are worried about what patients might choose to do."

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "The Government needs to end its obsession with massive central databases.

"The NHS IT scheme has been a disastrous waste of money and the national programme should be abandoned."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that ministers "absolutely support" the right of patients to opt out of the scheme, adding that various options were provided to make this straightforward.